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Sacramental inefficiency and liturgical uselessness: Insights from St. John Paul II and Romano Guardini 

Perhaps in this time of pandemic we may appreciate anew—but from afar and with real hunger and renewed appreciation—the sacraments we have hitherto taken for granted, now temporarily lost to us.

(Image: Josh Applegate |

In the late 1990s, a professor of mine rather off-handedly recommended one of those books that has stayed with me: Josef Pieper’s superlative Leisure: The Basis of Culture (which Ignatius Press has rightly kept in print). Every Catholic should read it, perhaps more than ever now when so many schools are closed and lots of us have unexpected time on our hands. We may be amazed to learn that the root of the word “school” is ultimately found in the Greek for “leisure.” I found, and still find, this etymology shocking for I was an anxious and busy graduate student when I first read it, and two subsequent decades in the academy have not abated that neurotic need to produce constantly.

Even now, when so much of the world has been forced to slow down and stay home (as I have) the pressure to keep producing is relentless. Perversely, I told myself just this morning that if I treat this time like my 2018 sabbatical (during which I wrote Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power) I might be able to crank out another book. (I already have two in press with publishers in Europe and America, but that never seems enough!) Such is the logic of capitalism, with its relentless demands for productivity and efficiency.

That is not a Catholic logic. The demands for productivity and efficiency can be destructive and deceptive, and nobody laid this our more clearly than two works published sixty years apart. The first is Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy from 1935, and the second is Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Let me discuss this latter first.

The late pope’s encyclical is sometimes simplistically described (if not disdained) as his “abortion letter.” But Pope John Paul II’s gaze was much wider and deeper than just condemning that great evil, and thus he denounced “an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” (par 12). This was a theme he returned to several times throughout the letter, later writing of how our talk (especially with regard to the sick and elderly) about “the so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency” (par 23).

The demands for efficiency invade our very hearts, minds, and souls, disdaining our bodies: as the pope wrote,

the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. (par 23)

Demands for efficiency, which disdain the corporeality of the person, also undermine any idea of dignity: “The criterion of personal dignity—which demands respect, generosity and service—is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness” (par 23). All this, the pope concludes, gives rise to

the ‘culture of death’, which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and by society. (par 64)

A quarter century ago the pope could not, of course, have seen how much the elderly are isolated today as we try to protect those most at risk from Covid-19. But perhaps now more than ever we have today a uniquely Catholic way of resisting this logic. Here is where the liturgy becomes so central and here is where we should return to Guardini’s book, which I used this semester in teaching a course.

Guardini also attacks the idea of efficiency, but in slightly different terms, beginning first with creation (“Are flowers and leaves useful?…What, upon the whole, is the use of the extravagance of shapes, colors and scents, in Nature? To what purpose the multiplicity of species? Things could be so much more simple”) before focusing on the liturgy. For Guardini, the liturgy abounds in jouissance. Like the extravagant displays in nature, the whole of our liturgical life exults in an overflowing “abundance of prayers, ideas, and actions,” so much so that

the whole arrangement of the calendar are incomprehensible when they are measured by the objective standard of strict suitability for a purpose. The liturgy has no purpose, or, at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end—it is an end in itself. This fact is important, because if we overlook it, we labor to find all kinds of didactic purposes in the liturgy which may certainly be stowed away somewhere, but are not actually evident.

Today we might be able to understand this anew thanks precisely to the extraordinary shuttering of most churches and the suspension of most public liturgies. In their place, more and more of us are watching a priest via video celebrate the Eucharist, often by himself or with only a handful of people present. For him to be doing this invites certain questions: “Why is Father saying Mass by himself? What’s the point when there’s no congregation, nobody to receive communion?”

The exact same question could be asked of us, too, every time we engage in the “liturgy after the liturgy,” the work of serving one another, especially in our domestic churches where many of us are spending more time than we’ve ever done since we were small children. The same question could be asked of every form of liturgy and liturgical actions—bedtime prayers with my kids, meditation while walking, a quiet word to a lonely man in the parish soup kitchen. Surely none of this is efficient or productive in technical or economic terms!

Guardini’s answer to this demand to prove the purpose of prayer and liturgy comes towards the end of the book, and could not be sharper. It remains my favorite passage from his text. Here he exhorts us thus:

The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game…without always immediately asking “why?” and “wherefore?” It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

How hard that is for us, even if we consider ourselves devout. How deep the capitalist logic of efficiency, productivity, and purpose has penetrated our minds and souls, leading us to scorn play and leisure. But perhaps in this time of pandemic we may appreciate anew—but from afar and with real hunger and renewed appreciation—the sacraments that we have hitherto taken for granted, now temporarily lost to us. Perhaps we may see in these difficult days that the sacraments have become to us commonplace by over-frequent reception. (I have long been skeptical that encouraging the weekly or, worse, daily reception of the Eucharist is an unquestioned good.)

And perhaps now we can understand that a priest saying Mass by himself offers glory to God and proffers a rebuke to the world’s logic. Perhaps now we can understand the paradoxical valueless value of Eucharistic exposition and adoration, when we do not “get” the Eucharist, do not receive it, but “only” behold it and adore it. Perhaps we can see that merely standing in our icon corner beholding the beauty of the Lord is deeply important in itself. Perhaps now our lack of access to Eucharistic liturgy (where, we sometimes tell ourselves, we at least “get something out of it” by receiving communion) might finally force us to take up in a serious and sustained way the Liturgy of the Hours, which remains the Church’s best-kept liturgical secret. Perhaps in being forbidden entry into our churches we might encounter the glory of the Lord on a walk, beholding his handiwork in the trees, sky, and water, and simply offer our thanksgiving, our eucharist, then and there without any “return on investment.”

Why would we do all this? Why this purposeless liturgy, this inefficient praying, these sacrament-less “spiritual communions” suddenly being talked about again? Can we truly say we get nothing out of all this? No, Guardini says, of course not. But what we get is not what we expect, and perhaps in this extraordinary, leisurely Lent-within-Lent we are now living we might be schooled spiritually to see (as Guardini insists) that

In the end, eternal life will be its fulfillment. Will the people who do not understand the liturgy be pleased to find that the heavenly consummation is an eternal song of praise? Will they not rather associate themselves with those other industrious people who consider that such an eternity will be both boring and unprofitable?

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 109 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Quoting Guardini, you write that the liturgy is an end in itself. Perhaps another way of thinking about this is that the liturgy describes the being of Christ – or that it is Christ’s expression of His being.

  2. And all those who drone on and on about the need for “active participation” in the Mass should read this essay. The new Mass is full of business and busybodies. That is why I find it intolerable. It offers no repose, no moment of contemplation, no notion of “passive participation,” which is exactly the type of participation which produced legions of saints.

  3. Extended leisure is often thought of as shiftless. Often correct. Romano Guardini To play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God well quoted by DeVille addresses something different. Beautifully said and also correct. Leisure in this sense is contemplative, an understanding between Man and God. A freedom inherently creative in the simple purity of the act. God who is pure act is supremely creative. There is much we don’t comprehend in God, one that Guardini intuits and DeVille apprehends.

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